Legislation is making its way through the Idaho Legislature that would make it a crime to file a false report of child abuse or neglect. Several other states have similar laws on their books.
House Bill 66, sponsored by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, passed the House on a mostly party-line vote Wednesday. Rep. David Cannon of Blackfoot was the lone Republican to vote against the bill.
It now heads to the Senate.
Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, is one of the bill’s cosponsors and spoke in favor of the bill to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee in a hearing last week.
The legislation from the North Idaho lawmakers says that any person who makes “a false report of child abuse, abandonment or neglect knowing such report to be false, or who makes such report in bad faith, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Scott and Herndon gave examples of what may or may not count as a knowingly false or “bad faith” report.
Herndon recounted a time when a nurse — whose profession is required by law to report suspected child maltreatment — called in a report about his family. He said the nurse did not have a full understanding of the situation, so that wouldn’t have been a “knowing” false report under the law, he said.
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Scott offered an example of “bad faith” during the House floor debate Wednesday. A person who sees homeschooled children playing outside at all hours, and calls in a report out of concern for the children’s wellbeing, would not be guilty under the bill, she said. However, repeated reports that are motivated by distaste for the family’s lifestyle would cross the line into “bad faith” reporting, she said.
If convicted, a person could be jailed for up to three months, ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, or both.
About 19 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands classified false child-protection reports as a misdemeanor or similar charge, as of February 2019, according to the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Florida, Illinois, Tennessee and Texas classify false reporting as a felony, the Children’s Bureau report said.
Idaho is one of about 29 states that allowed for civil penalties as of February 2019, the report said.
“Any person who makes a report or allegation of child abuse, abandonment or neglect knowing the same to be false or who reports or alleges the same in bad faith or with malice shall be liable” to those who were falsely reported and must pay the larger of $2,500 or actual monetary damages, the current civil law says.
“If the court finds that the defendant acted with malice or oppression,” the court can triple the dollar amount of the penalty, the law says.
Herndon and Scott argued that the civil penalties are toothless because Idaho law shields the identity of people who report child maltreatment.
During the floor debate Wednesday, Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, said that Idaho already makes false reporting illegal.
“A person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he knowingly gives or causes to be given false information to any law enforcement officer, any state or local government agency or personnel, or to any person licensed in this state to practice social work, psychology or counseling, concerning the commission of an offense, knowing that the offense did not occur or knowing that he has no information relating to the offense or danger,” says one of Idaho’s longstanding statutes.
Mathias said the bill is unnecessary and would add “more government and more law.”
Scott did not respond to say how the bill differs from that statute.
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